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Tavis Smiley on Imus: 'He gave in'

TV host discusses state of discourse on race and plans for Rutgers speech.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Just a month after CBS fired Don Imus for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team "nappy-headed ho’s," another team of shock jocks was fired and XM Radio stalwarts Opie and Anthony suspended for offensive remarks. It shows, said Tavis Smiley, that the national discourse on race that Imus was supposed to have inspired hasn’t gotten off the ground.

"The fact that we have not had a sustained conversation about the most intractable issue in this country means we have not taking it seriously," Smiley told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer, calling the firestorm after the Imus comments a case of "hit it and quit it."

Smiley is the host of a talk show on PBS and Public Radio International and a leading voice of the African-American community. He stopped at the TODAY studio on his way to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Among those graduating will be several members of the basketball team Imus slurred.

Imus made his comments on April 4. By the end of the following week, MSNBC dropped his simulcast, then CBS fired him. Since then, WFNY-FM shock jocks Jeff Vandergrift and Dan Lay, hosts of "The Dog House with JV and Elvis," were fired for a prank call laced with Asian slurs to a Chinese restaurant. Shortly after, XM Radio suspended Opie and Anthony for a month for a sketch that involved the rape of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

"Here’s the reality," Smiley said. "None of these persons that we see being disciplined right now have done this for the first time this week. It’s a pattern here and networks know that, advertisers know it. It requires us to engage in due diligence more often about the talent that we put on the air."

Two separate issues
Smiley said that Imus’ claim that he was just taking his lead from language used in the hip-hop community was "absurd." There are two separate issues, he said, one about race relations in America and the other about the black community’s attitudes toward itself and hip-hop culture.

"There are two legitimate conversations," he said, "but the Don Imus matter is the wrong entry point. You cannot take one who was essentially a racial arsonist like Don Imus was and flip the conversation to talking about what black America’s responsibility is." The black community, he said, has been debating that issue for years.

Imus’ sin, Smiley said, was that he "did not so much give up as he gave in. That’s what’s wrong in America. To be successful, you have to not give up."

"You do not become a radio icon in this business for 40 years by being a quitter. He didn’t give up. He gave in. He gave in to race-baiting. He gave in to elitism and arrogance."

That’s the message Smiley said he hoped to deliver at the Rutgers commencement. "Not giving up is an important message, but not giving in is the more important message. Not giving up but not giving in speaks not to victimization but to victorship," he told Lauer.

He said he would acknowledge the members of the basketball team.

"I hope to find a way to thank them for their grace and their dignity throughout this entire ordeal," he said. "I have to believe the good people at Rutgers are sick and tired of hearing about this Imus controversy."